Portland city officials may need to backtrack on an order issued last week that all employees be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or risk losing their jobs.
Officials said they’re considering tweaking the rule to exempt one bureau: the city’s police force.
The city attorney’s office advised city staff on Tuesday that the order requiring Portland’s police force to be vaccinated was now legally dubious due to new guidance from the Oregon Health Authority.
Under Oregon law, local municipalities can only issue vaccine mandates for firefighters and police officers if there is already a federal or state rule in place that requires it, per an email from deputy city attorney Heidi Brown. The city believed that requirement came on August 19 when Gov. Kate Brown issued a vaccination mandate for the state’s healthcare workers. The city felt the Governor’s definition of health care workers was broad enough to cover police officers, who receive some medical training. The city attorney’s office advised the city to move forward with a citywide vaccination mandate that included police.
But new guidance related to the Governor’s vaccine mandate, delivered to the city late Friday, said that police officers were most likely exempt from the state’s vaccine mandate. That guidance said law enforcement was “probably not” subject to the governor’s orders as providing medical care was “likely not a fundamental part of their job.”
The updated guidance has forced the city of Portland to reconsider its own mandate.
“There is no regulation requiring vaccination for police officers, and without this, the City cannot require police be vaccinated,” Brown wrote in an email.
The rule change would come after fierce backlash against the mandate from the city’s police union, which warned such a requirement would lead to mass resignations within an already short-staffed force. Willamette Week reported that the police union’s lead attorney had argued to the city that officers were opposed “so deeply” that they would leave the force before getting a vaccine. According to PPB spokesperson Teri Wallo-Strauss, the bureau has had 145 sworn bureau members leave since July of 2020.
The Portland Police Bureau said it does not have vaccination rates for its officers.
The city has not publicly announced any change in policy regarding the vaccination mandate. It is allowing exceptions to the vaccine requirement for all city staff who have medical and religious reasons for not getting vaccinated “that meet legal standards.”
Multnomah County was thrown into a similar position on Tuesday. Like Portland, the county has ordered all employees to be vaccinated by October 18 — including the sheriff’s office.
As of Tuesday afternoon, county officials said they were reviewing how they were impacted by the state’s new guidance. They emphasized they wanted to see the entire sheriff’s department vaccinated — regardless of whether they could ultimately enforce their own mandate.
“We strongly believe that everyone should be vaccinated, especially those people who work in close contact with vulnerable Oregonians,” wrote county spokesperson Julie Sullivan-Springhetti in a statement. “We believe vaccines are the key to ending COVID.”
This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.